NSW voter anger may flow into Federal poll

Water dominates the campaign in the safe Liberal seat of Farrer

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CHALLENGER AND INCUMBENT: Farrer has been described as one of the most unusual contests, in the upcoming Federal election. Here Independent Kevin Mack and Liberal MP Sussan Ley appear at an Albury candidates forum. Photos by Andrew Miller.

CHALLENGER AND INCUMBENT: Farrer has been described as one of the most unusual contests, in the upcoming Federal election. Here Independent Kevin Mack and Liberal MP Sussan Ley appear at an Albury candidates forum. Photos by Andrew Miller.

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Water issues dominate the contest for the NSW Riverina seat of Farrer.

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A leading political commentator says the southern NSW Riverina seat of Farrer - which tracks the border with Victoria - will be one of the more unusual contests in Saturday's election.

A popular local mayor, Albury's Kevin Mack, is standing as an independent under the Voices for Farrer banner against Liberal incumbent Sussan Ley.

But commentator Kevin Bonham says what is more unusual is that the campaign appears to have been dominated by a single issue - water.

"It is pretty uncommon that a single issue seems to define a contest, whether its enough of an issue to interest the rest of the seat remains to be seen," Mr Bonham said.

Earlier this year, the NSW Government announced there would be zero allocation for the state's Riverina irrigators.

Read more: Free water representing 5 per cent of allocations for all shareholders

Mr Mack is one of nine candidates, including representatives from Labor, the Liberal Democrats and United Australia Party, standing for the seat.

Farrer covers an area of 126,000 square kilometres, along the NSW side of the Murray River, stretching from Albury to the SA border, and taking in the state seats of Murray and part of Barwon.

Both fell to the Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party, with the Nationals losing Murray after a 26 per cent swing against them

But the adjoining seat of Albury, which makes up more than a quarter of Farrer's voting population, delivered a small swing to the Liberals.

Mr Bonham said there were substantial factors as to why Farrer, which Ms Ley holds by margin of 20.5 per cent, could fall.

"If voters have the same feeling about the coalition, Federally, as they did at state level, then look out," Mr Bonham said.

Issues playing out in areas such as water and health saw the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party win Murray and Barwon.

Commentators said voters had deserted the coalition in droves, with the swing against the Nationals put down to the party abandoning and ignoring the state's regions.

Mr Bonham said it was harder for an independent to cover a Federal election, than a state election, and build up a profile.

"It's also unusual that, in this election, we have almost a co-ordinated multi-independent campaign.

"There is a level of networking, between independents, with common concerns, which is a different feature, this campaign.

"One of the common factors is climate, and there is also a common factor, in terms of an approach to government they want a more open style of approach."

Change of government

Monash University political commentator Nick Economou said the rise of the independents was a classic sign of a "government changing election."

"You get that candidate churning, in what would normally be safe seats," Dr Economou said.

"Safe seats rarely attract large numbers of candidates.

"You expect that when it looks like the major party, which dominates that seat, is in trouble.

"So it doesn't surprise me, because there is a sense of opportunism there."

Independents also had a higher chance of picking up rural or regional seats, rather than in metropolitan electorates.

He said lessons could also be drawn from the recent NSW election, in which disillusionment with the National Party was evident, as well as independent Ali Cupper taking the seat of Mildura, in last year's Victorian poll.

He predicted Sussan Ley would win, but the count would go to preferences, which was unusual.

"It's a sign that the Nationals and Liberals have had a tough three years, voters realise that and are not happy with them," he said.

It was also interesting voters were still raising Ms Ley's 2015 purchase of a Gold Coast investment property, while on a taxpayer-funded trip to the Gold Coast.

"It's not a good look," Dr Economou said.

"Those sorts of things don't go over well in parts of rural Australia, where they are always battling the economy and the environment.

"Farming is not easy; weather conditions are difficult, regional and rural Australia is not sharing in the economic benefits in the same way the cities are."

Irrigator support

At candidate forums, Ms Ley passionately defended her support for irrigators.

Ms Ley was one of nine Farrer candidates, who took part in The Border Mail forum in Albury.

"Water is the number one issue in my electorate - it always has been," Ms Ley said.

"But I'm not looking any irrigator in the eye and telling them I can solve their problems, at a stroke of a pen, because we all know it's not that simple."

She was asked by Oaklands potato and cereal grower Geoff Moar why she hadn't done anything to protect irrigators.

"We've got this whole election, over water, happening here, because of your inaction," Mr Moar said.

Barooga irrigator Carly Marriott said it might be time for Ms Ley to move aside, to let someone else get more effective results.

"Working hard is not getting the results we need, as irrigated farmers," Ms Marriott said.

Ms Ley hit back at Mr Moar and Ms Marriott, saying they should declare their interests, in backing the Voices for Farrer group, which was supporting independent candidate Kevin Mack.

She said Ms Marriott should acknowledge her father Colin Brooks had financially supported Voices for Farrer.

And she said Mr Moar should declare he was a founding member of the group.

"I reject the premise of your question that I have not been working hard for people I represent, totally reject it," Ms Ley said.

"I can give you chapter and verse of all the things I have done."

She said if there was no Basin Plan, general security allocations in NSW would have also been on zero.

"Allocations are done by the states, based on inflows and the numbers of entitlements.

"I am very critical of the Basin Plan - I say it's flawed, I say we need water to come from the environment to the farmers," she said.

She said the only thing that had changed, since the introduction of the Basin Plan, was the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder had been given entitlements.

"But they, like the general security water entitlements, are currently at zero - so it makes no difference."

She said she had strongly supported a cap on water buy-backs, a robust socio-economic neutrality test on recovery and a proposal to release water from the environment to irrigators.

"When I put up that proposal last year, where were you?," Ms Ley said.

"Did you come did you come out of the woodwork to support it?"

Ms Ley said she fought for what she believed in, because those who stood for nothing were no-one in Federal Parliament.

"I wake up wanting to fight the fight for all of you - fighting the fight on water, in this home of irrigated agriculture, fighting the fight for the small businesses, because they are the fabric, the touchstone, the heart of every community."

Read more: Basin Plan withdrawal call renewed

She accused Mr Mack of joining with 14 other 'climate' independents, running against coalition candidates on a climate change agenda.

"It's actually about returning more water to the environment, and less water for farmers, and that's a real concern," Ms Ley said.

Questioned by one forum participant over her alleged support for Queensland MP Peter Dutton, in last year's Prime Ministerial spill, she said he was a friend.

"He's actually a good person and I am very proud to say he's a mate of mine."

She said she divided those around the Cabinet table into those who "got" water, and those who didn't.

"Peter Dutton gets water, so does the Prime Minister," Ms Ley said.

"To have champions at the table has always been of vital importance to me."

Voices for Farrer

The powerful Southern Riverina Irrigators group, chaired by Chris Brooks, has supported Voices for Farrer and Mr Mack.

Read more: Irrigators say they're the refugees of the Riverina

PAUSE THE PLAN: Southern Riverina Irrigators chairman Chris Brooks at the Barooga Pause the Plan meeting.

PAUSE THE PLAN: Southern Riverina Irrigators chairman Chris Brooks at the Barooga Pause the Plan meeting.

The group has raised $200,000 in support of Mr Mack's election campaign.

SRI ran a series of public meetings, across the region, calling for the Murray Darling Basin plan to be paused and an independent review carried out into it.

"We are just feeling like refugees of the Riverina - we have been forgotten and badly represented at both a State and Federal level," Mr Brooks said at the Barooga meeting.

"This whole region was built at the foot of these dams - there are two massive dams (Hume and Dartmouth) of almost three million gigalitres each and the environment has taken water out of one of them."

Mr Mack said when it was built the Hume weir was seen as the most significant irrigation project, in the southern hemisphere.

"My, my, have the politicians forgotten what it was for," Mr Mack said.

As deputy, or mayor, of Albury City Council for seven years, he said he had been the "driver of the bus.

"I think many our politicians have been passengers on this bus, for too long.

"The gravy train is about to stop," Mr Mack said.

He said only independents could turn around the situation facing the Riverina.

"Albury has no problems but will have a critical problem, if Farrer fails.

"Without Farrer, Albury is just another dusty town - 40 per cent of the nation's food comes from this region."

He said voters in the region were in a powerful position.

"Federal Parliament is where they make all the decisions that relate to outcomes for you and your livelihoods," Mr Mack said.

'We need to make sure there is a democratic voice, in the big house."

"We support Pausing the Plan, we support a Royal Commission into this water fiasco

"Our farmers, in Farrer, are struggling, our irrigators are struggling.

"There is a lot of discussion going on in the last six weeks, and I've been referred to as the 'water member', and I'm quite proud of that because it means I am standing for something."

The electorate of Farrer had focused national attention on the issue of water.

Mr Mack said he wanted to dispel what he said was the myth that a vote for an independent was a vote for Labor.

"A vote for an independent is a voice, a true voice, for the community, a voice that is not constrained by policy, a voice that is not constrained by any particular major party.

"One good example is Cathy McGowan.

"She has achieved incredible feats in her six-year term in government, and certainly we can all learn from those feats."

Voter uncertainty

CHANGING TIMES: Farrer voter, Deniliquin's Linda Fawns, says the election has brought up some interesting challenges.

CHANGING TIMES: Farrer voter, Deniliquin's Linda Fawns, says the election has brought up some interesting challenges.

Deniliquin, NSW, Poll Dorset stud co-principal Linda Fawns said it was the first time she had ever seen so many independents standing for parliament.

"How the government functions will be interesting to watch," Ms Fawns said.

"For the first time, in my life as a voter, I am unsure what to do."

"I've always been a party voter, and it's a really tough call, this time."

She said Mr Mack appeared to have a strong following in the community.

"What I can see has happened is that Farrer was a safe seat, and now it might be a marginal seat

"Hopefully that will make a huge impact, in a positive sense, in that nothing can be taken for granted, any more."

But she said the vastness of the electorate could count against Mr Mack.

"I don't think whether the people in Albury fully understand the impact of water

"The most they have to do with water is the fact it runs past their front door, and it's a pretty river they live on

"I don't think they fully understand the impact of water on the Farrer electorate."

Ms Marriott said the backbone of Farrer was its agricultural industries.

"If you take that away, your town centres of Griffith and Albury won't be thriving and they won't be very strong, going into the future," Ms Marriott said.

"It's the fundamental of our electorate, on a Federal level."

And Mr Moar said it appeared Ms Ley had only "come out of her shell", to get involved in water when she faced some opposition.

"We are sick of hearing the Minister for Agriculture being interviewed, and he says 'well, I can't make it rain," the Leader of the Nationals says "I can't make it rain," Mr Moar said.

"It's a water sharing plan, that has disadvantaged the Murray system.

"The Murray system is doing all the heavy lifting this year."

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